Is there a stable place to rest at the end of the progressive path?
This is the question posed by Elizaphanian (The Revd Sam Norton) on January 25th, and which I have been mulling over ever since. I suggest you read the whole post, but among other things he says the following:
Western society has embarked upon a radical restructuring of its cultural life in three inter-related issues, to do with homosexuality, marriage and divorce, and the economic role of women. The classical understanding of the church, that sexuality is only to be expressed within a heterosexual marriage, has been widely abandoned…The church has been caught up in this cultural change and is now at risk of opprobrium and worse if it does not, in David Cameron’s ill-chosen words, ‘get with the programme’…The RC stance…has proven workable for thousands of years…Does the progressive, secular, post-Protestant form of Christianity have a destination?…Having said all that, I remain quite open to the idea that the Spirit is genuinely behind all these developments…and I certainly can’t see our society reversing many of them. Yet, as I also see our society as heading down the tubes with great rapidity, I don’t see that latter point as bearing much theological weight. I genuinely don’t know the answer to this, but it is what I am thinking about.
The short answer to the question.
My short answer to this question is ‘No’.
The slightly longer answer
First, it must be said that the question is perfectly understandable, and is widely being asked. The inference is that if the progressive path cannot offer a stable place to rest, it is unreasonable to expect the general public to follow the path.
The question is not a new one, and nor is my answer. Heraclitus, for one, got there first: All is flux, nothing stays still or, in other words, Nothing endures but change.
Differing roles of God and the Church
Since the dawn of time, one of the reasons people have believed in the gods is that life seems full of capricious change. One or more supreme beings seem to offer the only possibility of stability. We pray: ‘ protect us through the silent hours of this night, so that we, who are wearied by the changes and chances of this fleeting world, may repose upon thy eternal changelessness‘.
Over the years, the Church has seemed to represent the deity in offering a haven of stability. It is easy to see how God and the Church have become confused in the psyche of churchgoers, but the Church is a human institution and is not in a position to offer ‘eternal changelessness’. To do so would be like trying to ride a bicycle without moving – you would soon fall off.
There is no advice in the Bible about how to manage the Church after 2,000 years of history (unless you know otherwise?). St Paul’s epistles are full of advice to churches which are newly set-up and, although much of it still applies to us, the task that we face in the 21st century is, I suggest, that of enabling the mighty, rushing wind of the Holy Spirit to blow through the dusty corners of the Church, and not to try and keep it out by means of draught excluders.
Does the Holy Spirit offer a stable place to rest?
Possibly. From time to time. But ‘he is not a tame lion, you know‘. And my hunch is that, after a very long period in which the Church has tried to plug the leaking dike and hold back the sea, in a period of stasis, the time has now come for metamorphosis.’Not for ever by still waters, would we idly rest and stay. But would smite the living fountains from the rocks along our way.‘ Psalm 104:10 He makes springs pour water into the ravines; it flows between the mountains.Psalm 105:41 He opened the rock, and water gushed out; like a river it flowed in the desert. Psalm 107:35 He turned the desert into pools of water and the parched ground into flowing springs;Psalm 114:8 who turned the rock into a pool, the hard rock into springs of water.
I also think that in this life there is no room for ‘changelessness’: this is something we are promised in the hereafter. But for now there is work to be done.
Do we know where the progressive path will lead us?
No, we don’t entirely. We know where we would like it to take us as soon as possible – the raising of women to the episcopate, the inclusion of LGBT people, and the empowerment of the laity. In shorthand, a Church of all the talents.
But there will be unforeseen and unintended consequences. Unforeseen and unintended by us, that is. I wonder what God wants?